It was the winter of 2020 in Bristol, Connecticut, and Mike Johndrow had just launched American Pride Lawn Care the summer prior. He was seriously sick (with Covid, he later realized) but there was a 100-yard driveway to clear and he, as the company’s sole employee, was the only one to do it.
“I didn’t have a truck yet, so it was just me and an Ariens PLATINUM 30 and an Ariens PATH-PRO," Johndrow remembered. “I was chugging cough syrup the whole time, and I brought my wife with me in case something scary happened.”
Fast forward to summer 2022. Johndrow’s company employs a team of six and serves 120+ clients (approx. 100 residential, 20 commercial).
A self-taught lawn expert, Johndrow had worked for years as a kid mowing lawns in the area. He loved and admired beautiful landscaping, but it wasn’t until he was nearly 50 years old that he decided to turn his passion into a second career.
The opportunity struck in 2017 when Johndrow was laid off from his job as a technology architect at ESPN. Before his departure, he often spoke to them about remaining relevant.
“I would tell them to continue to be successful, you need to stay relevant and passionate about what you’re doing. If you don’t wake up every morning loving what you come to work to do, you need to go find that thing.” When asked by his colleagues what he’d do when he left his IT role he told them, “Open up a lawn care company. I’d like my biggest stressor to be rolling in dog poop while cutting lawns.”
American Pride Lawn Care was launched in the summer of 2019 with one client, a Gravely ZT HD 60 zero-turn mower, two string trimmers and a snow blower, all being pulled on a 12-foot trailer by a 2016 Jeep Wrangler (recognized by many locals for its patriotic graphics). By fall the company had 35 customers and by the next year, it had 75 customers. Today, the equipment lineup includes all Gravely and Ariens equipment: a ZT HD 60; two Pro Stance 60s; a Gravely Pro-Walk 60; two Ariens PATH-PRO snow blowers; an Ariens PLATINUM 30 snow blower; two Ariens ST824 snow blowers; two dump trucks and an enclosed 18-foot trailer.
After two years of doubling his business, Johndrow made his toughest decision to date – he scaled back his client roster. His business was booming, but he was spending too much time traveling back and forth to jobs that were miles apart. So, to maximize efficiencies, he decided to focus on the local customer base. This meant slashing his customer roster and starting over.
“We went from 75 clients to nine and I remember thinking, ‘It’s not even 10 customers,’” Johndrow said. “It was January 2021, and I sent out a message to my customers to let them know we weren’t coming back. I had a red Sharpie, and I’m just crossing names off the list, and I am getting scared, and I’m thinking that I’m taking this whole business that I've tried so hard to build and I’m throwing it out the window.”
According to Johndrow, he said it was at that moment he realized he had to dig deep and have faith in his ability to build it back up.
To help rebuild, Johndrow’s mentor and friend, Jason Sirko, owner of Touch Of Pride Landscaping, gave him eight new local clients and as he refocused on his local market, including a large commercial contract he was awarded, things really took off. By spring, his phone was ringing off the hook.
Today, his business continues to expand, and he hopes by next year to have two crews. Johndrow said it’s hard for him to pull back on work in the field, but in August 2022 he took a day off to attend a wedding and sent his crew out without him.
“I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous, because I need to make sure every yard is stamped with my signature,” Johndrow said. “They did an excellent job and as proof, they were tipped on seven of the 10 jobs, so that tells me they carried over that signature really well.”
Johndrow explained that he believes strongly in rewarding good work and providing incentives. For example, if a job is bid out for nine hours, and his crew can get it done in six meeting his quality signature stamp of approval, all the money over six hours is divided up equally among the employees.
Johndrow’s crew is like family, he said, and he cares deeply about every employee. He cites one young man, who came to him with no experience and a serious case of ADHD.
“I started talking to him and he had held a plethora of jobs, and it dawned on me that everyone had given up on this kid,” Johndrow said. “Then I decided that there was no way I am going to also give up on him because really, he just needs someone to guide him. Now, he’s one of my best guys, and he says to me ‘Boss, if you’re working, I’m working.’”
Like everyone, Johndrow’s operation has been adversely affected by rising fuel costs. He said he held off for as long as he could, but this summer he imposed a gas surcharge. Between the equipment and the trucks, he needed to add the surcharge to ensure the business is profitable.
He said his insurance premiums are also going up. While he’s not sure exactly what accounts for the insurance hike, he said it’s likely due at least in part to the types of properties he works on for snow removal.
As he looks ahead to next season, and the next few years, Johndrow is making big plans. His No. 1 goal, he said is to be named a Gravely Ambassador.
“The first piece of equipment I bought was a Gravely, and it’s a brand I love,” he said. “I fell in love with the brand because of its history. Ariens is hands down the king of snow removal, and that’s all we run.”
He added that he and his Gravely dealer, Dan LeBlanc at River East Power Equipment in Hartford, have a great working relationship. Specifically, he and LeBlanc coordinate when it comes to customizing features, for example installing a new seat with more flexibility in a Gravely 660 he was demoing.
“Dan is the most amazing power equipment dealer I think I've ever met,” he said. “He’s extremely honest, extremely knowledgeable and he goes way above and beyond.”
Another goal for 2023 is to grow the business, have a second crew, and continue to increase the size of his American Pride Family.
His ongoing goal is closest to his heart – spreading American pride across the community. Johndrow is a passionate supporter of military personnel and veterans and offers pro bono lawn care to disabled veterans and active service people.
To show his respect, Johndrow launched “RED Fridays” in honor of “Remember Everyone Deployed.” On Fridays, his crew wears a special red t-shirt with the RED logo and a flag on one sleeve. He said he wears the shirt every day. His main inspiration is his best and oldest friend, Toby Wayne Boyce, a retired Marine Corps sergeant major.
“He has actually been a huge inspiration for a lot of the things that we do and how we look at things,” he said, adding, “I’m so grateful I’m able to provide a service to people who've given so much.”
All new customers get the special American Pride “signature” their first year, in the form of an American flag placed in their yard.
“We say, ‘You’ve been flagged,’ and it demonstrates that they are a member of our American Pride family,” he said. He added that the customers love them. His company also maintains them throughout the season, retires them properly, and takes them down with the last mowing of the year before the harsh weather arrives.
“I have always wanted to make a difference, and I believe I’m doing that by working in the community and helping people,” he said. “For me, it is about good work and having a good time doing something I love.”
1. FIND A MENTOR. Johndrow connected with his friend, Jason Sirko, and relied on him regularly as he was building his business. Sirko provided Johndrow with new clients when he scaled back in 2019 and continues to give him new business.
2. TREAT EVERYONE’S LAWN LIKE YOU WOULD YOUR OWN. “Our residential accounts are the most important to me because that’s where I got started, and I never want to lose sight of having that personal connection with them.”
3. LEARN FROM YOUR CLIENTS. "We have a commercial client who we’ve learned a lot from this year, understanding their expectations and how we can meet them.”
4. STICK TO WHAT YOU KNOW. While Johndrow plans to expand his services to include landscape design and architecture someday, for now, he is sticking to lawn care. “We had plans, in the beginning, to include gutter maintenance and tree trimming, too, but decided to stay in our lane.”
5. LOVE WHAT YOU DO AND THE MONEY WILL FOLLOW. "Have fun while working hard for your customers and that translates to success over time.”